Entering his seventh year as senior pastor, Rev. Patrick Rogers leads an evolving congregation at the United Church of Christ Fort Lauderdale.
“I think we’re being led by the spirit in this new concept of rebuilding church and what church is,” said Rogers, in his native Tennessean accent. “Church used to be — how many people come on Sunday morning and what the offering was. It’s not like that at our church anymore, not that it ever was the focus. We’re now rebuilding our church to be about the needs of the community.”
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed and challenged those needs. From relying more on live streaming to embracing new methods of healing, the church continues to respond.
“Adapting is very important,” Rogers said. “We are adapting to the current needs of the community.”
For many, the novel coronavirus has been an emotional setback inflicting doubt, fear, isolation and in the worst case, death. Rogers himself fell victim to the virus, testing positive days before Christmas despite being fully vaccinated and boosted. He spoke to SFGN via telephone from quarantine.
“It’s been a difficult year to be a leader in this time, working with the church to decide how to cope and deal with the needs brought out by COVID,” he confessed.
Rogers was able to return to the pulpit after New Years, getting a negative test result in time to deliver a social justice sermon in honor of the late South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Dressed in a white robe and red stole, Rogers repeated Tutu’s famous words about neutrality.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” Tutu declared.
At UCCFTL Rogers, his staff and volunteers strive to lift the elephant’s foot off of the mouse’s tail in several ways. Through its Ruth’s Ministry, the church offers a weekly hot meal, clothing and other essential supplies to the homeless and hungry. It is a mission that goes beyond the sanctuary walls as its leaders have envisioned.
“Church for me is about people being active in the community where they live,” said Bob Wolfe, a UCCFTL member. “Church is not about the building, it’s the people. We have to go back to that philosophy of church.”
A retired educator, Wolfe grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania and moved with his wife to South Florida 17 years ago. When his wife died, Rogers was at the hospital to offer support.
“He was there all day, giving us the strength and helping us through the process,” Wolfe recalled. “It’s rare to get that kind of attention from a senior pastor, but Patrick goes out of his way to minister.”
One of 92 UCC churches in Florida, the Fort Lauderdale congregation stands as a beacon for LGBT people. Jeff Wheeler, a gay man, served on the leadership board that hired Rogers. It was a smart decision, Wheeler said.
“He brought a very balanced approach about how the church should be run,” Wheeler said. “His background as a CPA set the church on a really good road to recovery.”
Wheeler said Rogers’ humble nature impressed him at their first meeting.
“I have deep respect for Patrick,” Wheeler said. “He has helped set a tone for the church to be open and accessible and he’s done that with love, kindness and empathy.”
For Kathy Brodeur, that openness and accessibility is a major reason she joined UCCFTL. A retired nurse from Long Island, New York, Brodeur lives in Margate. She’s a straight woman who describes herself as more spiritual than religious and enjoys singing in the church choir.
“I chose Fort Lauderdale because I felt the Boca church would be too uptight and stuffy,” she said. “I’m glad I did. It’s open and affirming of people wherever they are in life. Churches need to stop playing that game of ‘You can’t come here unless.’”
Rogers has always been frank about his sexuality. He has joined peaceful protests for LGBT rights and Black Lives Matter, oftentimes wearing a clerical collar and carrying a placard identifying himself as a gay pastor. He is not afraid to challenge institutions such as the Salvation Army and its history of discrimination against LGBT people or the federal government’s more recent immigration policies dealing with families.
“We talk about things,” Rogers said. “We talk about topics but not people. How can you get together and talk about salvation when kids are in cages?”
The church’s willingness to take on social justice issues is what Wolfe likes about UCCFTL.
“We have a diverse congregation and that’s important,” Wolfe said. “You have to own your life and be comfortable with who you are. That old stereotype of gay is wrong. What I have seen from gay people I know is a strong sense of caring for and protecting each other and I think it’s because they have gone through so much trauma together. I think it’s a wonderful example of true compassion.”
Gary Hill fits such a description. Hill has been looking after Roger Handevidt, a longtime Fort Lauderdale businessman, who owned several gay guesthouses. They watch Sunday service in the theater of Meridian Senior Living Community on E. Oakland Park Blvd. where it is live-streamed on YouTube.
“They told me a lot of their population is Jewish but they love our service,” Rogers said. “I love that. I think that’s awesome.”
Hill said Rogers' temperament is what keeps people coming back.
“I think one of the endearing aspects of Patrick’s relationship with the congregation is his light-hearted and welcoming attitude towards everyone,” Hill said. “He’s a bright spot in the lives of all who know him.”
Hill also points to a long list of improvements to the church during Rogers’ tenure. The chancel was modernized and renovated, new air conditioning equipment installed and the entire complex was re-roofed, but improving people is their ongoing mission.
“Patrick is emotionally willing to put himself on the line, to show and experience loss and pain, which creates an environment for people to relate and experience true connection,” Hill said.
One of the church’s signature phrases is “...where God is still speaking,” and for Rogers that message now centers on healing.
“God gave me this vision that what the world needs in our community is healing,” he said. “We’re open to where the Holy Spirit is leading us to be who she wants us to be.”